The "Fighting Okra" Is On Top - - The News for South Mississippi

The "Fighting Okra" Is On Top

Being at the top of the Division II baseball rankings suits Delta State pitcher John Polles just fine. ``How many times can you say that you're the No. 1 team in the nation,'' the stellar sophomore said. The Statesmen have won 18 in a row and are atop the Collegiate Baseball rankings for the second straight week. It's the first time since 1996 that Delta State is No. 1 in the nation, but it's no surprise. Cleveland, Miss., has long been the home of winning baseball teams. Among the latest inductees to the school's athletic hall of fame is former major league pitcher Stu Cliburn. Their home park _ Ferris Field _ is named after longtime coach and former major leaguer David ``Boo'' Ferris. Expectations were especially high coming into the season. Led by Polles and fellow freshmen pitchers Reeves Smith and Dusty Hughes, Delta State went 50-11 and finished third in D-II College World Series last year. With all three back, the Statesmen were ranked No. 7 to start the season. Enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that only three starters returned to the lineup. Pitching would have to carry Delta State until the new batters were up to speed, sixth-year coach Mike Kennison figured. ``We felt like replacing the offense we had from last year would be difficult,'' he said. Wrong.

While the young guns took a little while to get settled in, the newcomers helped form a potent lineup. Junior college transfers Andy Dillard and Edwin Maysonet rank one and two on the team in batting and the Statesman are hitting .361. Dillard, a third baseman, said he could tell during fall workouts that the Statesman would do some damage at the plate. ``It wasn't really that one guy just stood out,'' said Dillard, a gap-to-gap line-drive hitter, batting .432 heading into Saturday's Gulf South Conference game at Central Arkansas. ``As a whole, everybody takes care of business at the plate.'' Maysonet is batting .415 while playing a steady shortstop. Polles said he probably put too much pressure on himself to top his 10-1 freshman year, explaining his 4.88 ERA and early season struggles. Still, he is unbeaten in six decisions. ``This team is exceptional,'' the right-hander from Brandon said. ``When I have a bad outing or a bad inning they pick me up.'' Smith and Hughes have also avoided the sophomore jinx. Smith, a 6-foot-6 right-hander, is 7-1 with a 3.56 ERA. Hughes, a left-handed closer, has fours saves and a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings. Senior Jay Garner has provided stability and experience, going 8-1 with a 2.76 ERA. Kennison said he likes the attention that comes from being No. 1, ``but on the other hand, we make sure we tell our guys it can be a short stay.'' Polles has gotten the message. ``Being No. 1 right now is a good thing, but it really doesn't mean anything,'' he said. ``The big thing is to be No. 1 at the end of the year.''

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